The S.S. Oxfordshire was the troop ship that we boarded in Southampton in 1962, bound for Malaya via Aden. I had some idea of what the journey would be like, having travelled from British Guiana to England as a ten year old boy on a ship carrying French troops (described in Joe Bloggs:An Unlikely Hussar Part 1 Voyage to England) This time, I had left behind a wife and young family and it was a wrench being separated from them. The army had taken care of all the arrangements and I had packed up our few personal belongings to be shipped ahead of us, but the families would stay in Shorncliffe until our ship had arrived in Malaya and we had settled in. Then they would be flown out to join us, whenever that would be. The Malayan Government at that time had been facing an insurgency, so the British and Commonwealth Forces had been sent there to deal with it. Our regiment, The Queens Royal Irish Hussars, had been sent ahead of us to help defend Malaya in a war known as “The Confrontation”. The Band was now being sent out to entertain the troops and their families and also to play at civilian functions such as dances, fetes, sporting functions, political functions, at the Embassies and on parades with our sister regiment from Australia and even at functions of the Sultan. It was a way of fostering good relations with our host country, Malaya.
I thought back to my passage in 1950 on the S.S.Misere and remembered the amount of activities that had been arranged to occupy passengers on the long and tediously slow sea journey. I intended to get involved in everything that was organised for us rather than waste away days and weeks in idleness. I needn’t have worried. There was plenty to do on board. There were the deck hockey competitions for a start, not to mention the deck cricket and the deck basketball. I was in the winning teams for all three and the prize money from all of these competitions helped boost my finances. This was handy because I had left all my savings and wages behind for my family to use in my absence. I am pictured playing deck hockey in the photograph above (front, second from right). I also got good at playing poker, which wasn’t allowed but most people did it, so a blind eye was turned on us! In fact some people even paid me to play on their behalf because I was so good at winning. I won quite a lot of money this way and gave it to Band Master Patch for safe keeping until we reached Malaya. Some of it I spent on souvenirs and presents for my family as we called in at places like Port Said in Egypt on our way to Aden via the Suez Canal. We had numerous stops on the way, picking up supplies and troops between Gibraltar and Suez.
As a band, we had to play regularly on the officers’ deck, the warrant officers’ deck and the troop deck to entertain them and of course we had to practise in between, so all this helped improve my percussion skills and my music sight reading. There was a ship’s talent competition so of course I entered that. I sang two Elvis Presley numbers: “All Shook Up” and “Teddy Bear”, then did a quick costume change into drag and sang “The River” by Ruby Murray, shocking the audience of soldiers into silence! However, in the final, I sang two Buddy Holly numbers and I think that is what won me the first prize of £5 (which was three weeks wages at that time). Band Master Patch looked after the money for me till we reached Malaya.
On the upper decks were some of the wives, mostly of senior ranks, who were sailing out to join husbands in the regiment who were already in Malaya. Dances were organised for them and we had to go up to their deck to be their dancing partners. I didn’t enjoy having to do this very much but at least it helped to break up the monotony and made a change of conversation. I just wanted to be reunited with my own family. I missed them. I hated being cooped up below deck in a bunk alongside scores of other soldiers. I did get into a few arguments with them especially if they weren’t as neat and tidy as me. I went up on deck to read and sleep where there was fresh sea air, peace and quiet. It was getting claustrophobic and I counted the days till we arrived in Penang. There were a few distractions such as sightings of porpoises and a whirlpool with a waterspout, which created a stir, but we were all glad to disembark in Penang. The ship would sail on to Hong Kong with other troops but we boarded the train to Ipoh.
I just looked out of the train window drinking in the scenery, imagining what it would be like with my family there to enjoy it with me. At last I was in tropical warmth again in an environment similar to the one I had been born in. I hadn’t experienced that since I was ten years old and I knew I was going to enjoy my time in Malaya regardless of whatever duties I had to do. In Ipoh, trucks collected us at the station and took us to our camp. We were billeted in “bashers” (clean, airy huts with corrugated iron roofs). The bashers permanently housed the single soldiers, but Ipoh wasn’t a war zone and I knew that whenever my family arrived, I would join them in family quarters outside the camp. Meanwhile I immersed myself in music practice so as to pass the music exams I would have to do if I was to keep my “B” trades. My colleagues in the band assured me that I was making progress but just as in sport only repeated practice would be the key to success. What they said made sense to me when it was put like that, so I took it on board.
Two weeks later, Sergeant Kane told me I had been allocated one of the best married quarters. It was a beautiful bungalow with a small fenced garden, sited on the crossroads a few miles from camp in Jalan Taiping. The neighbourhood was undeveloped, pleasant and friendly. I got myself a bicycle to reach camp faster. Then to distract myself from the frustration of not knowing when the family would arrive, I played lots of sport against local teams who wanted matches with us.
My first match was in the local padang (stadium) against the top football team. They were expecting to humiliate our regimental team by beating us decisively while we had not yet acclimatised to the conditions. It was anything but a “friendly” game from my point of view. None of the crowd of thousands cheered us. Their hostility was palpable. I was determined to put in a good performance to relieve my pent up frustration. At half time we were giving them a good beating and all three of the goals had been scored by me. The opposition targeted my legs and started kicking them instead of the ball. The referee, a local, did nothing so I complained to our football officer, Mr Farant, from the REME detachment.
“Take it easy, Joe, don’t retaliate,” he said. It was easy to say this when you weren’t the person being kicked and tugged at.
I played on, waiting my time for a show-down and then was so badly fouled that I lost my temper and had to be pulled away by a team mate before I could kick back. The sneaky smiles and sniggers of my opponents confirmed my suspicions that they were targeting me. I was put into a defence position and told not to score any more goals, but I was allowed to take corners. That gave me my opportunity for revenge since the big Chinese centre half who had been kicking me earlier was poised to come at me again. He didn’t know that I was more interested in him than in the ball at this point and as he came for me, I head-butted him instead of heading the ball into the goal. He got taken off the pitch to have stitches in his forehead. I have always been headstrong in this way. Having removed this man from the pitch, we went on to win the match resoundingly. It sent a message to all local teams that this new regiment, The Queens Royal Irish Hussars weren’t going to be a push-over in any sporting activity for the next three years.
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If you want to find out what happened in my later life when I returned to help develop my birth country Guyana in South America, then look for “The ElDorado Affair” by Jane Joseph ISBN 978-0-9932409-0-4 available in paperback on Amazon.co.uk, order it through your local book store or read it in Kindle format ISBN 978-0-9932409-1-1 available worldwide on Amazon.com